NFC West Writer
CANTON, Ohio — Still smiling after a jubilant locker room celebration following a thrilling 31-27 overtime victory over the michigan panthers on Saturday night at Tom Benson Memorial Stadium, last year’s final seed seemed like a distant memory for the pittsburgh maulers.
But Pittsburgh linebacker Kyahva Tezino hadn’t forgotten that.
“We’ve been through a lot as a team,” Tezino said. “We went from 1-9 last year to being in the championship game. We had people laughing at us, people talking on Twitter… Those of us who were here last year still remember those things. We are so blessed to be in this position right now. And we definitely won’t take that for granted.”
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In what was expected to be a defensive battle for the USFL Division North title offenses took over in the second half, with Pittsburgh quarterback Troy Williams wanting his team to win by helping Pittsburgh’s offense execute at critical moment.
The Utah product finished 23 of 40 for 203 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for a team-high 36 yards, helping the Maulers reach the precipice of going from worst to first in a season. The Maulers face Sunday’s South Division Championship winner between the Birmingham Stallions and the New Orleans Breakers next week in Canton.
While the two offenses faltered in the first half, they combined for 31 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. The back and forth affair had six lead changes.
With the USFL’s No. 1 defense, Pittsburgh appeared to be in a good position to close out the game after kicker Chris Blewitt kicked a league-best 59-yard field goal to give the Maulers a 2-yard lead. 20-17 with 3:16. left in order
Highlights: Maulers edge Panthers in overtime
“He’s our guy,” Tezino said. “We see him practice hitting like 65 yards. It’s easy for him.”
However, the Panthers retook the lead when newly named starting quarterback EJ Perry threw a 55-yard touchdown run to Trey Quinn on a goal route. Initially, the play was called off due to a facemask call on offensive tackle Josh Dunlop. However, the call was reversed on replay, and Michigan took a 24-20 lead with 2:04 remaining.
But that lead didn’t last long, as Williams drove the Maulers 51 yards in eight plays. The key play came on fourth-and-goal from the Michigan 7-yard line, when Williams found Ishmael Hyman on a perfect throw on a thin post for the go-ahead score and a 27-24 lead with 39 seconds remaining.
Williams said the Maulers made the same play for a touchdown during a two-minute drill at practice this week.
Once again, however, Perry proved up to the task, driving the Panthers 38 yards in seven plays, to set up Cole Murphy’s 47-yard field goal to send the game into overtime, the first in the USFL this season.
Perry and the Panthers started slow, scoring just three points and turning them around three times in the first half. But Brown’s product heated up in the second, as he finished 23 of 38 passing for 370 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception.
“In the second half, we took care of the ball and everybody made plays,” Perry said. “DJ [Montgomery] It’s a foot out of bounds in the first half on a great play, and in the second half, we’re in bounds with Cole. [Hikutini] down the sideline. marcus [Simms] flying past everyone on the field, and then Trey [Quinn] obviously.
“So at the end of the day, those guys made some great plays. And in the first half, we shot ourselves in the foot a little bit.”
Even with Michigan gaining some momentum heading into overtime, the Maulers kept their composure. Williams converted the first down from 2 yards out when he found tight end Mason Stokke up the middle on a game action pass.
Pittsburgh’s defense then forced Michigan running back Stevie Scott to fumble at the goal line. Quinn recovered the ball in the end zone, but in overtime, an offensive recovery in the end zone goes back to where the ball was fumbled, so the attempt was no good.
Williams took matters into his own hands on second down, running in to score. And then Pittsburgh’s defense stepped up, with defensive tackle Olive Sagapolu crushing Perry’s attempt to end the game, with the Maulers running down the field.
Tezino led the Maulers with nine tackles and one fumble recovery, while Panthers linebacker Frank Ginda was all over the field, totaling 11 combined tackles and one sack.
Quinn finished with five receptions for 104 yards for Michigan, while Pittsburgh’s Isiah Hennie had six receptions for 83 yards.
“We came from 1-9 and couldn’t beat anybody last year,” Maulers head coach Ray Horton said. “We struggled at first, but I want to thank these guys for having faith in me. They didn’t know me. They didn’t know me from anybody. We had a plan and we implemented it. Nobody said it was going to be easy.” .
“And it wasn’t. It isn’t. And it shouldn’t be, for the rewards you get.”
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.
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